It's Not Centrifuges Delaying Iran Nuclear Deal, but Questions of Profit and Loss

Along with finding a solution to the issues of the duration of intrusive inspections of its facilities and the pace of sanctions, Tehran is concerned about maintaining 'honor' and marketing its achievements to the masses.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi Iranian, at the talks in Geneva this week. Khameini is backing his negotiating team.
Former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi Iranian, at the talks in Geneva this week. Khameini is backing his negotiating team. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

There’s still no agreement between Iran and the six major powers holding talks on Tehran's nuclear program, but new understandings have been reached, and if all goes smoothly, a deal will likely be signed next month. The March 31 deadline for an initial accord is like a sword at the throat of both Iran and the Western powers, because the question is no longer what constitutes a good agreement ־ but what the alternative is if no agreement is reached.

Would the West then consider an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Would imposing additional sanctions force Iran to capitulate? And on the other side, would the regime in Tehran be able to cope with the ongoing economic crisis and the quiet public protest in the country without a clear horizon for the end of sanctions?

Thus, it isn’t the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate or the conversion of the heavy water facility in Arak that are delaying the deal: Agreements in principle have already been reached on these issues. Rather, the issue is the final profit-and-loss statement each side will be able to present, on the assumption that neither wants to go back to square one. That assumption has already been proven by the very continuation of the negotiations – the signing of the interim agreement in November 2013 and the two extensions of the talks since then – in contrast to the breakdown in talks that occurred during the tenure of Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran talks about “honor” while the West seeks a significant reduction in the nuclear threat. The concept of “honor” and the “achievement of Iranian interests” refer primarily to Tehran's ability to market an accord as a success from its standpoint. That’s why it’s insisting on the rapid removal of economic sanctions and a shorter time period for intrusive inspections of its nuclear program.

The marketing issue is a challenge for the U.S. administration, which will have to obtain approval for the agreement from Congress, assuage Israel’s concerns and create a new relationship with Iran. Some parts of the emerging deal already provide answers to these dilemmas, like Tehran’s decision to accept a much more rigorous inspection regime than that required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty it signed – to export surplus stocks of uranium enriched to a five-percent level, to export or dilute uranium enriched to 20 percent, and to convert its heavy water facility in Arak.

Thus, the main issues now are the number of years Iran will have to remain under the inspection regime, the pace at which sanctions will be lifted, and the benchmarks each side will have to meet to be considered in compliance. So, for instance, there’s now a disagreement over whether the inspection regime should last for 10 years, as Iran demands, or 15, as the United States has asked.

But each of these issues also includes a long list of conditions and details that could thwart the deal even after an agreement in principle is reached – for instance, the West’s demand that inspections also take place at Iranian military facilities that could be used for nuclear experimentation.

That’s why Iran is worried by the division of the agreement process into two stages – first an agreement in principle, to be finalized by the end of March, and then a detailed agreement, to be finalized by the end of June. Both Iranian leader Ali Khamenei and several other senior Iranian officials have voiced reservations about, and even opposition to, the two-stage agreement, for fear that during the three months of discussion on the details, various parties will try to undermine the accord in principle, or present conditions that would cause that agreement to fall apart.

This doesn’t mean Khamenei opposes the agreement itself, or that his desire for a one-stage process is intended to prevent any agreement from happening. Indeed, the backing he has given to the negotiating team, along with the fact that Ali Salehi – who currently heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and served as foreign minister under Ahmadinejad – has now joined the talks, may actually be evidence of the urgency he attaches to reaching an agreement.

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